15 March 2011 was the day the Muslims of Syria rose against Bashar Al-Assad, the authoritarian secularist and Arab nationalist who himself succeeded his father Hafez Al-Assad after his death in 2000. The father was as criminal as the son, and the family imposed its rule on a Muslim-majority nation for now five decades.
This movement, which began as a peaceful protest, was ruthlessly crushed. Eventually it evolved into one of the bloodiest contemporary conflicts. Hundreds of thousands have died, including 30,000-40,000 civilians (hundreds of them being children) in Al-Assad’s jails under torture. Many have just been missing and one-third of the pre-war population of 22 million is internally displaced. Roughly the same number are refugees in other lands, mainly in the region but also in the West.
This article will not be about the legitimacy of the revolt nor why it failed due to the contradictory ideological forces at play, as many, following the “Arab Spring” elsewhere, wanted to oust Al-Assad, a secular-nationalist dictator, to bring… a secular-nationalist democracy!
So replacing a militant form of liberalism by a more cosmetic one.
What we’ll concentrate upon will be the suffering of Syria’s Muslims under the secularist dictatorship.
The Tragic Case Of Hamza al-Khateeb, A Child
Behind all these numbers, there are individual stories of our Muslim brothers and sisters, who of course are more than mere statistics.
To get an idea of the tragedy, let’s read about a single but significant case, that of Hamza al-Khateeb, who was 13 when he died under the following circumstances, as Al-Jazeera reports:
Though not from a wealthy family himself, Hamza was always aware of others less fortunate than himself, said a cousin who spoke to Al Jazeera.
“He would often ask his parents for money to give to the poor. I remember once he wanted to give someone 100 Syrian Pounds ($2), and his family said it was too much. But Hamza said, ‘I have a bed and food while that guy has nothing.’ And so he persuaded his parents to give the poor man the 100.”
In the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, however, Hamza found no such compassion, his humanity degraded to nothing more than a lump of flesh to beat, burn, torture and defile, until the screaming stopped at last.
Arrested during a protest in Saida, 10km east of Daraa, on April 29, Hamza’s body was returned to his family on Tuesday 24th May, horribly mutilated.
The child had spent nearly a month in the custody of Syrian security, and when they finally returned his corpse it bore the scars of brutal torture: Lacerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face and knees, consistent with the use of electric shock devices and of being whipped with cable, both techniques of torture documented by Human Rights Watch as being used in Syrian prisons during the bloody three-month crackdown on protestors.
Hamza’s eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly.
On Hamza’s chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off.
This is how literally tens of thousands of Muslims, including children, have been treated in Assadist jails, such as the infamous Sednaya prison, for decades.
This is how secular-nationalism imposes itself on a Muslim population: It’s spread, not by the sword, but by electric shock torture devices.
The Trauma of the 1982 Hama Massacre
If we want to understand the ruthlessness of Assad’s son, we have to look at how Assad the father himself dealt with “Islamists.”
In the mid to late 70s, Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood members began to militate against Hafez Al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime, as they quite logically believed a nation with around 75-80% Sunnis couldn’t remain under the authoritarian rule of an Alawi (considered heretics even by Twelver Shias!) who subscribed to Arab nationalism and secularism.
They thus launched many local insurgencies, which brought the wrath of Assad the father with acts reminiscent of those by Assad the son.
Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, an interesting American speaker, wrote in an early book, The Islamic Struggle in Syria, in 1983, p. 86:
The retaliations of Asad’s regime have on a number of occasions involved attacks on mosques and other objects of sanctity to Muslims. In June 1980, for example, 60 mosques in Damascus were attacked during a single night, and copies of the Qur’an in the mosques were torn up and defiled. On occasion Asad’s special units have bombarded mosques in Damascus, Halab, Hamah, and Hims and, according to An-Nadhir, have brought about destruction that even the Mongols and the French during their periods of rule in Syria did not dare to do.
Imagine doing worse than the French when it comes to your hate of Islam?
Such struggle would reach its peak in Hama a few years later, in 1982: for nearly a month, Hama, an important city in the west of Syria, would witness heavy fighting between “Islamist” insurgents and the Syrian army, under the command of General Rifaat Al-Assad, Hafez’ brother, who thought that the better option was to basically annihilate the city, like Bashar is doing nowadays.
The results: tens of thousands of dead and a long-lasting trauma which would dissuade the Muslims of Syria to ever think of “uprising” again.
Sam Dagher, at the beginning of his book Assad or We Burn the Country, perhaps the single best work on Syria, wrote:
Khaled’s father, Hikmat al-Khani, a well-respected ophthalmologist, was tortured to death by Hafez’s forces simply because he had treated the wounded during the regime’s assault on Hama. Dr. Khani was among the nearly 10,000 who perished, according to the lowest estimate of the death toll. Three of Khaled’s cousins were among the thousands who remained missing.
Hafez justified the massacre at Hama as retribution against “terrorists,” members of a militant Islamist insurgent group. His message to all Syrians, especially non-Islamists who had peacefully challenged his regime during the same period, was unequivocal: This is what will happen to you if you ever think of rebelling again. It worked. Syrians were terrorized into submission for three decades.
Khaled had grown up internalizing the rage and trauma from witnessing the massacre, unleashing it only in his art—paintings filled with deformed, faceless figures and masses subsumed to an ancient and mythical godlike leader. “We should have rebelled the moment Hafez died and power passed to Bashar but we were too afraid,” he said. “The Arab Spring was our best chance to try again.”
But not everyone was ready to take the plunge.
The older generation, remembering Hama and its aftermath, was more fearful of the consequences of rebellion than Syria’s youth. Although there were plenty of exceptions, members of minority groups like the Alawites, Christians, and Druze generally tended to see the current regime as their protector from the extremist tendencies they believed could emerge among the Sunni Muslim majority, which had long viewed the Assads and their Alawite sect as usurpers.
Psychological terrorism is basically what kept the Muslims of Syria passive towards the secular-nationalist dictatorship.
Also note how the “minorities” support the secular-nationalist Ba’ath regime for their own “safety,” discarding the “safety” (understand: life, honor, etc.) of the Muslim-majority.
We have to bring this point because some of the biggest supporters of Bashar are the right wingers in the West. These right wingers will cry about “minorities” at home, but will support the a brutal dictatorship of minorities for the Muslims of Syria!
The Role of Russia
The current events in Ukraine force us to also consider the role of Russia in the ongoing Syrian tragedy.
Supporting the Ba’athist government diplomatically since the beginning of the revolution, Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, convinced by Iran’s Qasem Soleimani, the head of his country’s Quds Force, and thus its foreign policy.
What’s more: the Russian intervention is what actually saved Bashar’s regime.
In 2015, Assad himself admitted his army was basically on the brink of collapse.
Then came Putin to the rescue.
ABCNews recently reported, making a link with the current Ukraine war:
Moscow’s 2015 decision to join the war in Syria was its first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation’s collapse. It saved President Bashar Assad’s government and turned the tide of the war in his favor, enabling the Syrian leader to brutally reassert control over much of Syria. Russian airstrikes often indiscriminately hit hospitals, schools and markets.
The war-ravaged country became a testing ground for Russian weapons and tactics that it can now bring to bear in Ukraine.
And, indeed, Muslims of Syria themselves make such a link.
From a tent in the rebel-held pocket of Syria, Ahmad Rakan has closely followed news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. More than two years ago, a Russian airstrike destroyed his house in a nearby village during a months-long Syrian government offensive backed by Moscow’s firepower that drove him and tens of thousands of others from their homes.
“We more than anyone else feel their pain,” he said of Ukrainian civilians currently under Russian bombardment.
For the past seven years, Syrians like Rakan have experienced first-hand Russia’s military might as it struck opposition strongholds, brokered mass surrender deals and deployed military police across their country, practically rendering it a Russian protectorate on the Mediterranean.
Observers say Russia’s brazen military intervention in Syria and the impunity with which it was met emboldened Vladimir Putin. They say it gave him a renewed Middle East foothold from where he could assert Russian power globally, and paved the way for his attack on Ukraine.
So if Assad the son continues his killing, maiming, and exiling of the Muslims of Syria today, Putin isn’t innocent.
Perhaps the likes of “Shaykh” Imran Hosein will misuse Islamic eschatology and say that the rebelling Syrian-Muslims were the army of the Dajjal and perhaps Putin is even the Mahdi, so all of this is justified.